I want to know everything

History of Christianity


Topics in Christianity
Movements · Denominations
Ecumenism · Preaching · Prayer
Music · Liturgy · Calendar
Symbols · Art · Criticism

Important figures
Apostle Paul · Church Fathers
Constantine · Athanasius · Augustine
Anselm · Aquinas · Palamas · Wycliffe
Tyndale · Luther · Calvin · Wesley
Arius · Marcion of Sinope
Pope · Patriarch of Constantinople

Christianity Portal

The history of Christianity concerns the history of the Christian religion and the Church, from Jesus and his Twelve Apostles and Seventy Disciples to contemporary times. Christianity is the monotheistic religion which considers itself based on the revelation of Jesus Christ. In many Christian denominations "The Church" is understood theologically as the institution founded by Jesus for the salvation of humankind. This understanding is sometimes called High Church. In contrast, Low Church denominations generally emphasize the personal relationship between a believer and Jesus Christ.

Christianity began in first century C.E. Jerusalem as a Jewish sect, but quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond to countries such as Ethiopia, Armenia, Georgia, Assyria, Iran, India, and China. Although it was originally persecuted, it would ultimately become the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 C.E. During the Age of Exploration, Christianity expanded throughout the world, becoming the world's largest religion.1

Throughout its history, the religion has weathered schisms and theological disputes that have resulted in many distinct Churches. The two largest Churches are the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but the various other Eastern Churches (such as Oriental Orthodoxy), Protestant Churches (such as Lutheranism) and others represent a large portion of the Christian community as well.

As Christianity moves into the twenty-first century significant efforts have been made to reconcile the schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, between Catholicism and Protestantism and between all the Protestant denominations.

Life of Jesus (2-8 B.C.E. to 29-36 C.E.)

Jesus Christ, Christ Pantocrator

Though the life of Jesus is a matter of academic debate, scholars2 generally agree on the following basic points: Jesus was born ca. 4 B.C.E. and grew up in Nazareth in Galilee; his ministry included recruiting disciples, who regarded him as a miracleworker, exorcist, and healer; he was executed by crucifixion in Jerusalem ca. 33 C.E. on orders of the Roman Governor of Iudaea Province, Pontius Pilate;3 and after his crucifixion,4 Jesus was buried in a tomb.5 Some have argued for the historicity of the empty tomb story6 and Jesus' resurrection appearances.7 The resurrection of Jesus formed the basis and impetus of the Christian faith.8 It is claimed in the Bible that after Christ's resurrection, he appeared to the disciples in Galilee and Jerusalem and was on the earth for 40 days before his Ascension to heaven.9

The main sources of information regarding Jesus' life and teachings are the four canonical Gospels and to a lesser extent the writings of Paul.

Early Christianity (33 - 325 C.E.)

Early Christianity refers to the period when the religion spread in the Greco-Roman world and beyond, from its beginnings as a first century Jewish sect,10 to the end of the imperial persecution of Christians after the ascension of Constantine the Great in 313 C.E., to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It may be divided into two distinct phases: the apostolic period, when the first apostles were alive and organizing the Church, and the post-apostolic period, when an early episcopal structure developed, whereby bishoprics were governed by bishops (overseers) via apostolic succession.

Apostolic Church

The Apostolic Church, or Primitive Church, was the community led by Jesus' apostles and his relatives.11 According to the Great Commission, the resurrected Jesus commanded the apostles to spread his teachings to all the world. The principal source of information for this period is the Acts of the Apostles, which gives a history of the Church from the Great Commission (Acts 1:3-11) and Pentecost (Acts 2) and the establishment of the Jerusalem Church to the spread of the religion among the gentiles (Acts 10) and Paul's conversion (Acts 9) and eventual imprisonment (house arrest: Acts 28:30-31) in Rome in the mid-first century. However, the accuracy of Acts is also disputed and may conflict with accounts in the Epistles of Paul.12

The first Christians were essentially all ethnically Jewish or Jewish Proselytes. Jesus preached to the Jewish people and called from them his first disciples, though the earliest documented "group" of appointed evangelizers, called the Seventy Disciples, was not specifically ethnically Jewish. An early difficulty arose concerning Gentile (non-Jewish) converts. Some argued that they had to "become Jewish" (usually referring to circumcision and adherence to dietary law) before becoming Christian. The decision of Peter, as evidenced by conversion of the Centurion Cornelius,13 was that they did not. The matter was further addressed with the Council of Jerusalem.

The doctrines of the apostles brought the Early Church into conflict with some Jewish religious authorities, and this eventually led to the martyrdom of Stephen and James the Great and expulsion from the synagogues. Thus, Christianity acquired an identity distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. The name "Christian" (Greek Χριστιανός) was first applied to the disciples in Antioch, as recorded in Acts 11:26.

Worship of Jesus

Christ Jesus,14 the Good Shepherd, third century.

The sources for the beliefs of the apostolic community include the Gospels and New Testament Epistles. The very earliest accounts are contained in these texts, such as early Christian creeds and hymns, as well as accounts of the Passion, the empty tomb, and Resurrection appearances; often these are dated to within a decade or so of the crucifixion of Jesus, originating within the Jerusalem Church. The earliest Christian creeds and hymns express belief in the risen Jesus, e.g., that preserved in 1Corinthians 15:3-4 quoted by Paul: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."15 The antiquity of the creed has been located by many scholars to less than a decade after Jesus' death, originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community,16 No scholar dates it later than the 40s.17 Other relevant and very early creeds include 1John 4:2,18 2Timothy 2:8,19 Romans 1:3-4,20 and 1Timothy 3:16, an early creedal hymn.21

Jewish continuity

Early Christianity retained many of the doctrines and practices of Judaism. They held the Jewish scriptures to be authoritative and sacred, employing mostly the Septuagint translation as the Old Testament, and added other texts as the New Testament canon developed. Christianity also continued other Judaic practices: liturgical worship, including the use of incense, an altar, a set of scriptural readings adapted from synagogue practice, use of sacred music in hymns and prayer, and a religious calendar, as well as other distinctive features such as an exclusively male priesthood, and ascetic practices (fasting, etc.).

The early Christians in first century believed Jehovah to be the Only true God, the God of Israel, and considered Jesus to be the Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament.

Post-Apostolic Church

See also: Apostolic Fathers
St. Lawrence before Emperor Valerianus (martyred 258) by Fra Angelico

The post-apostolic period encompasses the time roughly after the death of the apostles when bishops emerged as overseers of urban Christian populations, and continues during the time of persecutions until the legalization of Christian worship during the reign of Constantine the Great. The earliest recorded use of the terms Christianity (Greek Χριστιανισμός) and Catholic (Greek καθολικός), dates to this period, attributed to Ignatius of Antioch c. 107.22


From the beginning, Christians were subject to various persecutions. This involved even death for Christians such as Stephen (Acts 7:59) and James, son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2). Larger-scale persecutions followed at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire, beginning in the year 64, when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Emperor Nero blamed Christians for that year's great Fire of Rome.

According to Church tradition, it was under Nero's persecution that Peter and Paul were each martyred in Rome. Similarly, several of the New Testament writings mention persecutions and stress the importance of endurance through them. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic persecutions for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor, which Rome considered treasonous and punishable by execution. In spite of these periodic persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

Ecclesiastical structure

By the late first and early second century, a hierarchical and episcopal structure became clearly visible; early bishops of importance were Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Irenaeus of Lyons. This structure was based on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession in which, by the ritual of the laying on of hands, a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line tracing back to the apostles themselves. Each Christian community also had presbyters, as was the case with Jewish communities, who were also ordained and assisted the bishop; as Christianity spread, especially in rural areas, the presbyters exercised more responsibilities and took distinctive shape as priests. Lastly, deacons also performed certain duties, such as tending to the poor and sick.

Early Christian writings

As Christianity spread, its converts included members from well-educated circles of the Hellenistic world, some of whom became bishops. They produced two sorts of works: theological and "apologetic;" the latter were works aimed at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity. These authors are known as the Church Fathers, and study of them is called Patristics. Notable early Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, Origen among others.

Early iconography

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, fourth century.

Christian art emerged relatively late; the first known Christian images appeared from about 200 C.E. This early rejection of images, although never proclaimed by theologians, leaves us with little archaeological records regarding early Christianity and its development. The oldest Christian paintings are from the Roman Catacombs, dated to about 200, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the third century.23

Early heresies

The New Testament itself speaks of the importance of maintaining orthodox doctrine and refuting heresies, showing the antiquity of the concern.24 Because of the biblical proscription against false prophets (notably the Gospels of Matthew and Mark) Christianity has always been preoccupied with the "correct," or orthodox, interpretation of the faith. Indeed, one of the main roles of the bishops in the early Church was to determine the correct interpretations and refute contrarian opinions (referred to as heresy). As there were differing opinions among the bishops, defining orthodoxy would consume the Church through the centuries (and still does, hence, "denominations").

In his book Orthodoxy, Christian Apologist and writer G. K. Chesterton asserts that there have been substantial disagreements about faith from the time of the New Testament and Jesus. He pointed out that the Apostles all argued against changing the teachings of Christ as did the earliest church fathers including Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Polycarp (see false prophet, the antichrist, the gnostic Nicolaitanes from the Book of Revelations and Man of Sin). Jesus also refers to false prophets (Mark 13:21-23) and the "darnel" (Matthew 13:25-30, Matthew 13:36-43) of the flock, warning that their distortion of the Christian faith should be rejected.

The earliest controversies were generally Christological in nature; that is, they were related to Jesus' (eternal) divinity or humanity. Docetism held that Jesus' humanity was merely an illusion, thus denying the incarnation. Arianism held that Jesus, while not merely mortal, was not eternally divine and was, therefore, separate from God, the Father. Trinitarianism held that God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all strictly one being with three aspects. Many groups held dualistic beliefs, maintaining that reality was composed of two radically opposing parts: matter, usually seen as evil, and spirit, seen as good. Others held that both the material and spiritual worlds were created by God and were therefore both good, and that this was represented in the unified divine and human natures of Christ.25

The development of doctrine, the position of orthodoxy, and the relationship between the various opinions is a matter of continuing academic debate. Since most Christians today subscribe to the doctrines established by the Nicene Creed, modern Christian theologians tend to regard the early debates as a unified orthodox position against a minority of heretics. Other scholars, drawing upon, among other things, distinctions between Jewish Christians, Pauline Christians, and other groups such as Gnostics and Marcionites, argue that early Christianity was fragmented, with contemporaneous competing orthodoxies.26

Biblical canon

See also: Deuterocanonical books , Apocrypha , and Antilegomena
A folio from P46, early third century New Testament manuscript useful in discerning the early Christian canon.

The Biblical canon is the set of books Christians regard as divinely inspired and thus constituting the Christian Bible. Though the Early Church used the Old Testament according to the canon of the Septuagint (LXX), the apostles did not otherwise leave a defined set of new scriptures; instead the New Testament developed over time.

The writings attributed to the apostles circulated among the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating in collected form by the end of the first century C.E. In the early second century, Justin Martyr mentions the "memoirs of the apostles," which Christians called "gospels" and which were regarded as on par with the Old Testament.27 A four gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was in place by the time of Irenaeus, c. 160, who refers to it directly.28 By the early third century, Origen may have been using the same 27 books as in the modern New Testament, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation.29 Likewise by 200 C.E. the Muratorian fragment shows that there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to what is now the New Testament, which included the four gospels and argued against objections to them.30 Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the second century.31

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of exactly the same books as what would become the New Testament canon,32 and he used the word "canonized" (kanonizomena) in referring to them.33 The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books, a decision that was repeated by Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.34 Damasus's commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.35 In 405, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse. When these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new, but instead "were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church."36 Thus, from the fourth century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and by the fifth century the East, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon.37 Nonetheless, a full dogmatic articulation of the canon was not made until the Council of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism,38 the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox.

Church of the Roman Empire (313-476)

██ Spread of Christianity to 325 C.E. ██ Spread of Christianity to 600 C.E.

Christianity in the period of Late Antiquity begins with the ascension of Constantine to the Emperorship of Rome in the early fourth century, and continues until the advent of the Middle Ages. The terminus of this period is variable because the transformation to the sub-Roman period was gradual and occurred at different times in different areas. It may generally be dated as lasting to the late sixth century and the reconquests of Justinian, though a more traditional date is 476, the year that Romulus Augustus, traditionally considered the last western emperor, was deposed.

Christianity legalized

Galerius issued an edict permitting the practice of the Christian religion under his rule in April of 311.39 In 313 Constantine I and Licinius announced toleration of Christianity in the Edict of Milan. Constantine would become the first Christian emperor. By 391, under the reign of Theodosius I, Christianity had become the state religion. Constantine I, the first emperor to embrace Christianity, was also the first emperor to openly promote the newly legalized religion.

Constantine the Great

Head of Constantine's colossal statue at Musei Capitolini

The Emperor Constantine I was exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. There is scholarly controversy, however, as to whether Constantine adopted his mother's humble Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life.40

Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "Εν Τουτω Νικα" ("by this, conquer!," often rendered in the Latin "in hoc signo vinces"; Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro). Under this banner they were victorious.41 How much Christianity Constantine adopted at this point is difficult to discern; most influential people in the empire, especially high military officials, were still pagan, and Constantine's rule exhibited at least a willingness to appease these factions. The Roman coins minted up to eight years subsequent to the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Nonetheless, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges (for example, exemption from certain taxes) to clergy, promoted Christians to high ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.40 Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital at Byzantium on the Bosphorus (it came to be named for him: Constantinople); the city employed overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls (unlike "old" Rome), and had no pagan temples. In accordance with the prevailing customs, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christian worship. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, effectively the first Ecumenical Council (unless the Council of Jerusalem is so classified), to deal with the Arian controversy. The Council would become more famous for their issue of the Nicene Creed, which, among other things, professed a belief in One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, the start of Christendom. The reign of Constantine established a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor in the Church. Emperors considered themselves responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and thus they had a duty of maintain orthodoxy.42 The emperor did not decide doctrine-that was the responsibility of the bishops-rather his role was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. The emperor ensured that God was properly worshiped in his empire; the exact nature of proper worship was left for the Church to determine. This precedent would continue until certain emperors of the fifth and six centuries sought to alter doctrine by imperial edict without recourse to councils, though Constantine's precedent generally remained the norm.42

The reign of Constantine did not represent a complete acceptance for Christianity in the empire, nor an end of persecution. His successor in the East, Constantius II, kept Arian bishops at his court and installed them in various sees, expelling the orthodox bishops.

Constantius's successor, Julian, known in the Christian world as Julian the Apostate, was a philosopher who upon becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism, shocking the Christian establishment. Intent on re-establishing the prestige of the old pagan beliefs, he modified them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (hitherto unknown in Roman paganism). Julian eliminated most of the privileges and prestige previously afforded to the Christian Church as the official state religion. His reforms attempted to create a form of religious heterogeneity by, among other things, reopening pagan temples, accepting Christian bishops previously exiled as heretics, promoting Judaism, and returning Church lands to their original owners. However, Julian's short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

Christianity came to dominance during the reign of Julian's successors, Jovian, Valentinian I, and Valens. On Feb. 27, 380, Theodosius I issued the edict De Fide Catolica establishing "Catholic Christianity"43 as the exclusive official state religion, outlawed other faiths, and closed pagan temples.44 Additional prohibitions were passed by Theodosius I in 391 further proscribing remaining pagan practices.

Diocesan structure

After legalization, the Church adopted the same organizational boundaries as the Empire: geographical provinces, called dioceses, corresponding to imperial governmental territorial division. The bishops, who were located in major urban centers as per the pre-legalization tradition, oversaw each diocese. The bishop's location was his "seat," or "see"; among the sees, five held special eminence: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The prestige of these sees depended in part on their apostolic founders, from whom the bishops were thus considered spiritual successors, e.g., St. Mark as founder of the See of Alexandria, St. Peter of the See of Rome, etc. There were other significant reasons for their priority. Jerusalem was the location of Christ's death and resurrection and the site of a first century council, among other things. Antioch was where Jesus' followers were first called Christians. Rome was where Saints Peter and Paul were martyred. Constantinople was the "New Rome" where Constantine had moved his capital c. 330. In addition, all these cities had important relics.

Papacy and primacy

See also: History of the Papacy

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the office is the "papacy." As a bishopric, its origin is consistent with the development of an episcopal structure in the first century. The papacy, however, also carries the notion of primacy: that the See of Rome is preeminent amongst all other sees. The origins of this concept are historically obscure; theologically, it is based on three ancient Christian traditions: (1) that the apostle Peter was preeminent among the apostles, see Primacy of Simon Peter, (2) that Peter ordained his successors for the Roman See, and (3) that the bishops are the successors of the apostles (Apostolic Succession). As long as the Papal See also happened to be the capital of the Western Empire, the prestige of the Bishop of Rome could be taken for granted without the need of sophisticated theological argumentation beyond these points; after its shift to Milan and then Ravenna, however, more detailed arguments were developed based on Matthew 16:18-19 etc.45 Nonetheless, in antiquity the Petrine and Apostolic quality, as well as a "primacy of respect," concerning the Roman See went unchallenged by emperors, eastern patriarchs, and the Eastern Church alike.46 The Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 affirmed the primacy of Rome. Though the appellate jurisdiction of the Pope, and the position of Constantinople, would require further doctrinal clarification, by the close of Antiquity the primacy of Rome and the sophisticated theological arguments supporting it were fully developed. Just what exactly was entailed in this primacy, and its being exercised, would become a matter of controversy at certain later times.

Ecumenical Councils

During this era, several Ecumenical Councils were convened. These were mostly concerned with Christological disputes. The two Councils of Nicaea (325, 382) condemned Arian teachings as heresy and produced a creed (see Nicene Creed). The Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorianism and affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary to be Theotokos ("God-bearer" or "Mother of God"). Perhaps the most significant council was the Council of Chalcedon that affirmed that Christ had two natures, fully God and fully man, distinct yet always in perfect union. This was based largely on Pope Leo the Great's Tome. Thus, it condemned Monophysitism and would be influential in refuting Monothelitism. However, not all denominations accepted all the councils, for example Nestorianism and the Assyrian Church of the East split over the Council of Ephesus of 431, Oriental Orthodoxy split over the Council of Chalcedon of 451, Pope Sergius I rejected the Quinisext Council of 692, and the Fourth Council of Constantinople of 869-870 and 879-880 is disputed by Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers

The early Church Fathers have already been mentioned above; however, Late Antique Christianity produced a great many renowned Fathers who wrote volumes of theological texts, including Saints Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and others. What resulted was a golden age of literary and scholarly activity unmatched since the days of Virgil and Horace. Some of these fathers, such as John Chrysostom and Athanasius, suffered exile, persecution, or martyrdom from heretical Byzantine Emperors. Many of their writings are translated into English in the compilations of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

The Pentarchy

By the fifth century, the ecclesiastical had evolved a hierarchical "pentarchy" or system of five sees (patriarchates), with a settled order of precedence, had been established. Rome, as the ancient center and largest city of the empire, was understandably given the presidency or primacy of honor within the pentarchy into which Christendom was now divided; though it was and still held that the patriarch of Rome was the first among equals.

The list below are the five Pentarchs of the original Pentarchy of the Roman Empire.

  • Rome (Sts. Peter and Paul), i.e., the Pope, the only Pentarch in the Western Roman Empire.
  • Alexandria (St. Mark), currently in Egypt
  • Antioch (St. Peter), currently in Turkey
  • Jerusalem (St. James), currently in Israel/Palestine
  • Constantinople (St. Andrew), currently in Turkey


Monasticism is a form of asceticism whereby one renounces worldly pursuits (in contempu mundi) and concentrates solely on heavenly and spiritual pursuits, especially by the virtues humility, poverty, and chastity. It began early in the Church as a family of similar traditions, modeled upon Scriptural examples and ideals, and with roots in certain strands of Judaism. St. John the Baptist is seen as the archetypical monk, and monasticism was also inspired by the organization of the Apostolic community as recorded in Acts of the Apostles.

There are two forms of monasticism: eremetic and cenobitic. Eremetic monks, or hermits, live in solitude, whereas cenobitic monks live in communities, generally in a monastery, under a rule (or code of practice) and are governed by an abbot. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, following the example of Anthony th